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Issue Two

Abundance by John Weir

in Issue Two/Nonfiction

The first time I went to a Debtors Anonymous meeting, they passed a bag for dues. Dues!  At Debtors Anonymous.  A bagful of loose bills in my grasp.  Did they send around a fifth of scotch at AA?  It was all I could do not to reach in and fish out my rent.  I was two months behind.  Was I really expected to put my stash of quarters and dimes, culled from a jar of loose change – my only active bank account – into a stranger’s purse?

I passed the bag along.

This act of refusal seemed especially furtive and small, given the place. We were in a church basement.  All around me, the indebted were perched in folding metal chairs, defeated but eager to “share.”  They were aggressively bereft.  Their pious abjection!  Their terrible lives, doled out in three-minute bursts.  What if I were not the most desperate guy in the room?  Could I stand that?  I saw at once that I had based my self-esteem on the faith that I had lost more than anyone else.  That was my secret pride.

And now, for my sin, I was in church.  The room was heavy with the atmosphere of grim confession paired with pleading self-affirmation, interrupted by appeals to the Higher Power. It was part love-in, part revival meeting.

Yet the faithful seemed to know something I did not.  They were talking in code, and I was trying hard to get what they meant.

“This is a disease of vagueness and denial,” somebody said.

“I’ve been in chaos all week,” said another.

There followed a chorus of assenting grunts, like Satan’s host of rebel angels coming clean about themselves, cast down not to a dark opprobrious den of shame but to a church basement hung with last month’s Christmas decorations – paper snowflakes, trumpeting shepherds, tinfoil stars.  They went on naming their transgressions, in the language of the place:

“I’m an anorexic spender.”

“I’ve been isolating.”

“I’m a deprivation addict,” a woman said.  Then she started to cry.  “Does anyone have a tissue?  I just need a corner.”

Then suddenly a guy was “qualifying” – giving a careful recounting of his path to solvency.  Sitting in the lotus position, with his palms open on his bent knees, he had fifteen minutes to speak, but he took thirty.  Clearly not a deprivation addict.

“I’m a debtor and a gambler with a history of substance abuse and a sex addiction and a difficult relationship to food,” he said.  “Sex is a substance.  So are the Mets.  The fuckingMets.”

Then he said the words “my abundance” and cried without speaking for three minutes and twenty-seven seconds.  I clocked it.  I hate to watch men cry.  They always expect a reward.  But we were in the West Village, and the room was packed with straight women and gay guys with important haircuts.  Everyone was profoundly moved.  There was a “spiritual timekeeper,” a woman who was supposed to signal when the man’s share was through, but I could tell from the expression on her face that she was going to let him go on and on.

I wanted a cigarette.  I had started smoking again, and I was spending whatever money I begged, borrowed, or rescued from the depths of my couch on a pack-and-a-half a day, bought a pack at a time.  Sure, I could smoke more cheaply, take a day trip to Long Island and pay forty-eight bucks for a carton.  Even figuring round trip train fare to Oyster Bay, that was still better than shelling out thirteen bucks a pack to the guys at my corner deli.  But I wasn’t smoking, I was stopping after this one.  Every cigarette was my last.  In any case, I never had forty-eight dollars all at once. So I was smoking provisionally, taking it one day at a time.

Finally, the guy stopped crying and started to talk.  He had a dreadful life.  Poverty, abuse, alcoholic parents, homelessness, drugs, demeaning sex, lousy jobs. Yet by the time he finished his story, he was solvent and ready for love, like the end of a Jane Austen novel. I didn’t join in the supportive applause.  His resurrection felt staged.

He dried his eyes, and we were asked to write.  No wonder we were treating debt as a narrative device: I had stumbled into a twelve-step Writers Group.  The place was jammed with novelists, their unsold manuscripts swelling their hard drives. Sheets of paper were handed around, printed with writing prompts.  We had twenty minutes to answer the following questions:

“Are you ready to let God remove your defects?”

God?  Is extracting my defects?  Will there be Novocain?

The next question said:

“What does it mean to be ready?

I didn’t have a pen.  Could I ask to borrow somebody’s pen at Debtors Anonymous?

Then:

“Why aren’t you ready?”

Why were these questions so hostile?  I thought about asking the crying guy to hold me.  Ready?  I don’t think I’ve ever been ready.  I wasn’t ready to earn money, and I wasn’t ready to spend it.  I certainly wasn’t ready to keep it.  I wasn’t ready to get things, and I wasn’t ready to have them taken away.  Who decided I was ready for the credit card sent to me by American Express in 1988? It came unbidden, pre-approved, with a $1,000 line of credit.  I had just finished grad school.  Credit card companies like nothing more than MFAs and PhDs in English Literature. They love the Humanities.  If you were inclined to spend wisely and plan for the future, you would not be getting a degree in Creative Writing.  American Express meets an English major, they see two words: penaltiesand interest.

Yet when their card came in the mail, I thought I had gotten a man from the Lord.  I was twenty-eight, an out of work white guy with two useless degrees, a BA in English and an MFA in Fiction.  My credit card was Prospero’s wand.  Americans don’t get rich or feel free unless they have slaves, but I found another way: American Express.

Then the bills came.  Who had money for that?  I paid them on time for a while, and then increasingly late.  Soon I was getting dunning notices, and final warnings, and pink slips with black block letters.  And because I was sending all my money to American Express, I couldn’t pay the IRS, and the difference between the government and a collection agency is minor but distinct: The government can freeze your bank account. Which is why I don’t have one.  So what?  You can’t lose what’s already gone.  Am I a deprivation addict?  When I’m left with nothing, I recognize myself.  Abundance would crush me.

I was $50,000 in debt, and that was my life.  It’s what I did.  I owed things.  I tried to file bankruptcy, but there was a fee.  A fee for a bankrupt!  “If I could pay for this, I wouldn’t be here,” I told the man behind the Lucite window. We were in one of those big 19thcentury buildings where they keep the terrible agencies that audit your taxes and revoke your driver’s license and refuse to lend you money on your retirement fund.  I knew he wouldn’t help me.  Still, you get two choices in life, suicide and hope, and I was sure I would kill myself wrong and end up not dead but maimed, with bad insurance.  So I picked hope, and watched the man through the window.

At last he spoke.  “I can’t do nothing for you,” he said, a smile of bureaucratic glee spreading across his face.  Then he pushed two forms through the slot at the base of his window.  I have measured out my life in government forms.  Forms to declare and forms to refute, forms to document and forms to deny, forms to justify and stipulate and itemize and plead. “I already got plenty of forms,” I told him, and he snuffled and wiped his nose and said, “Well, now you got two more.”

I took his forms home and threw them in a drawer stuffed with bills.  Not exactly bills.  They were beyond bills.  They were not even any longer patient reminders to pay bills.  Warnings and disconnect notices, they were orders to put up and to appear, to represent myself in Small Claims Court, to respond to final statements.  Everything was past due, it was always already too late.

Why aren’t I ready?  I’m just a debtor, that’s all.  I don’t have a reason.  In any case, reasons don’t help. Neither does blame, which is too bad, because I’m half Catholic.  The other half is Episcopalian, and I learned two things, growing up: Everything is your fault, and no one can help you.

What I had instead of reasons were boldfaced warnings from the IRS, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and the Parking Violations Bureau. Con Edison took away my light on a regular basis.  How many nights have I spent alone in the dark, which is not a metaphor, without a phone because I also owed money to Verizon?  In the black of night I couldn’t read the books I bought compulsively at Barnes and Noble with lousy checks.  The books I didn’t read for which I hadn’t paid covered the walls of my apartment like the lining of a uterus.

I slept in a dark womb hiding from a law firm in Bayside, Queens.  It was the local strong-arm of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, to whom I had been reported by Columbia University, from which I hadn’t officially graduated years before because I still owed them $3,000.

Why didn’t I pay Con Ed on time?  I had the money.  For a minute. I promised myself not to spend it. I lied.  I spent everything.  I wasted it all, not even on a weekend drunk like Ray Milland pawning his typewriter for a Gin Rickey in crisp black-white-white New York under the Third Avenue el.  I didn’t have a typewriter to sell, or an el to stumble under, but I had the Strand Bookstore, where I sold my books.  I bought them full price in August and sold them for one quarter their cost in November.

No one is meaner than the guys who buy your books back at the Strand.  They know exactly what filthy habits you have welcomed into your life, what acts in cubbyholes and dark corners you cannot even afford except by selling on Friday morning the volumes of existential philosophy you purchased Monday afternoon.

I owed money to co-workers and ex-boyfriends and dead friends and my shrink. My shrink!  I went to his office every week for ten years and for five of them I didn’t pay.  We sat together in his sunny room in his beautiful leather chairs discussing why I couldn’t afford to be there, and then I left without paying.

I fled therapy and moved to Texas, which is what twelve-step programs call “doing a geographic.”  That’s how America was settled: Thousands of white people in pointy hats got in big boats in order to run out on the Parking Violations Bureau, and their reward was Connecticut.

I had a teaching job in Texas that lasted five months, but I agreed to continue therapy on the phone, because: I can’t let go!  I don’t break up with people, I just turn out one day to be living in Houston, and then my phone gets disconnected.  Who can reach me?  Not my fault!  It’s possible my therapist was my oldest living friend, excluding my brother and my parents who I hope aren’t reading this, and one ex-boyfriend whom I dumped twice in ten years and whom I still owe $1200.  I owe my shrink $5000.  I stopped calling both of them.  I stopped calling everyone.

They were all creditors.  I owed something to everybody, money or love or an explanation or an email message. My family, my friends, my longtime service providers, the IRS, Mr. Locke from American Express who called me every day, twice a day, more faithfully than any lover.  “This is Mr. Locke,” he said, my morning wake-up call.  His voice was thunderously low.  “Hi, Mr. Locke,” I said.  “Mr. Locke,” I said, “do you realize you’re my most successful long-term relationship?”

The group leader at Debtors Anonymous told us to put down our pens.  I wasn’t done.  I needed more paper.  Nonetheless, it was time to read, out loud, what we wrote.

The woman beside me volunteered to speak.  She set aside the page of questions on which she had written nothing at all.  “I won’t read what I didn’t write,” she said.  Her hands were folded in her lap, and her voice was clear and low.  She was in her forties, wearing a blouse and skirt, and her hair was pulled back off her face and held in place by a clip.  She paused a long time, but without tears.

I knew what I wanted her to say.  I wanted her to say, “I hate the world.”  “Some are gonna rob you with a six gun, some do it with a fountain pen,” she would say. “America, I have given you my all and now I’m nothing.  Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”  She didn’t say that.  She didn’t say, “I’ll pay my back taxes when abortion is free on demand in Texas, why are one million young black men in prison, when will George Bush finally admit there were no weapons of mass destruction?”

She said nothing like that.

Instead, she talked simply and plainly for exactly three minutes and her story was so stark, so uninflected by program lingo, that I was ashamed of myself.  She was in worse shape than I had ever been. Yet she spoke without a trace of self-pity.  She stated facts, and didn’t stop for applause.

I would not have survived her life.  Yet she said, “Every morning, I get on my knees.  First thing.  And I thank God for another day.”

Well.  I was furious.  Thank God?  For another day?  Every morning, I wake up angry that I’m not Brad Pitt.  How dare she?  The meeting lasted twenty minutes longer.  I said the stupid serenity prayer, and then I ran outside and smoked three cigarettes – two of which I bummed from passersby – before I calmed down.

 


John Weir is the author of two novels, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and What I Did Wrong.

in Fiction/Issue Two

There are no rooms, no houses, no neighborhoods or cities to which you can escape. The lack is in the mind and it can’t be filled. The third-floor apartment underneath the 4th Avenue flyover overlooking the man asleep in the alley, is the same as the Upper West Side apartment, is the same as the four-bedroom ranch-style in Houston. It is an ugly world, and the only love to be found comes from stumbling backward into some.

This is a story about hope.

Bathrobes are for widows and sexual predators. This bathrobe is standing in my doorway, shuffling worn slippers on the third-floor carpet. She gives me a red velvet cupcake baked by her granddaughter whom she raises when her daughter cannot. She is not beautiful, in age or in defeat. She is not worried or broken. She is a woman who has lived a life and found herself in a Bridgeland apartment underneath the flyover to downtown.

“My granddaughter loves to bake. I told her we were baking for you today. It’s red velvet.”

The absence of her top two teeth is marked by a few vertical creases from her upper lip to her nostrils. We are friends because I hold the door for her when she comes back from the gas station with milk.

She leans to the left, looks into my apartment, down the hallway. “My friend lived in there for 15 years, you know. She got too sick to take care of herself. She’s in a home in Bowness now.”

“Thank you,” I say. I can’t remember her name so I ask what red velvet is.

“I don’t really know,” she says. “My granddaughter is in grade four.”

“That’s great.”

“I take care of her now and then.”

“I hope she likes it.” I mean both grade four and being cared for.

The conversation evaporates, turns into the dust, becomes grime in the grout between the cinderblocks.

“Well, thank you again,” I say and slowly close the door on her. She leans her head in pace with my slow closing, chasing the longest possible look down my hall.

I have moved in defeat and fear so often and so quickly there is nothing left. The apartment is empty. There is a twin bed and a desk in a bedroom. Though I am capable of great affectation, this is just an empty life. I don’t have it in me to hold onto objects. My head though–I count the bumps in the textured bedroom ceiling to fall asleep. It is the least harmful way to collapse.

There are two girls, my daughters, in a condo up by Nosehill, an ugly park with an ugly name – a blank mound of prairie above the important parts of Calgary. It is nature’s ugly, but the subdivisions crushed up to and surrounding it are the city’s brand of one-upmanship, a competition between Calgary and God for oblivion.

In Houston, in a bed, I woke in the night, dog, cat, first baby, wife in a king-size bed I could never to seem to afford new sheets for, afraid that I could not save anything wrapped in those sheets.

What needed saving? Another daughter born, a relationship that wasn’t even comfort, just a destructive distraction from the general terror. So many years later, I am thankful to her for leaving because I did not have the guts to do it myself. What’s worse, learning the evil you’re capable of or learning the misery you’re willing to receive?

But there are two girls. What to say, that I love them, that I seek to protect? That they bring joy, make me smile, that I like to watch them watch the world? That I can imagine future heartbreaks and disappointment and that it hurts me? There are no new ways to say I am thankful for their living in this world and also fear the possibilities of those lives.

Red velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. The forks and spoons are in the drawer with the checkbook and the junk mail. The man asleep in the alley hasn’t moved since my first cigarette. Red Velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Take a shower, get ready.

In time, my girls will ask me questions about what I did and didn’t do and why: life, divorce, moves and money. I make most choices today based on those coming questions. But the money is gone, the career is gone – too many moves. Can I say it? Would they believe me? Is it true? I followed them as far as I could: to Calgary, and when they moved to Edmonton, I simply could not go. To live for anyone else is bankruptcy – moral, emotional, financial. So the girls are in Edmonton and I am in Bridgeland.

They have visited. Spent the night on the floor between comforters left over from previous moves. Hearts and circles on one, birds on the other. We woke and walked to Luke’s Drugmart. They found a $35 candle. I told them to put it back. They have been to dozens of Broadway shows; their playground was all of Central Park. In Bridgeland, the candles cost too much.

The apartment is empty, but the mirrored medicine cabinet is newly full. Toothbrushes, Scope, Crest 3D Whitening, baking soda. The fight against coffee, nicotine, age, and poverty rages. What does my mouth smell like? What does it taste like? I’m too old to taste like candy, and did I ever? After the first tooth brushing, floss, then mouthwash, then the electric toothbrush. It is an extravagance, scrub the tongue, reveal the flesh under the cigarette film. Rooftop Reds are really American Marlboroughs, they tell me. If it is a lie, it is one I am still willing to believe. Mouthwash again. Exeunt.

I walk to the living room window naked, but the nearest neighbor’s window is across an alley and a parking lot. A bottle picker pushes his cart down the alley, past the sleeping man. I think to bag the empties and toss them to him from the balcony, but I am naked and so instead take a few steps back from the window. Your innocence is intact! Bottle picker! You have been saved! At what cost?! Cans!

I contemplate the phone, study the man asleep under the power pole. I mark the location of his socked foot, stripes, against a stain on the fence. He may not have moved in four hours. If you aren’t moving by 6 PM, I will save or bury you. There was a time when I didn’t understand people who drank alone, and then suddenly there was a time when I did.

The Starbucks down the alley across Edmonton Trail is filled with the men that eventually turn into bottle pickers and alley sleepers. They come from the Drop-In and Rehab Centre across the river, across Langevin Bridge, but they still own something that connects to free wifi.

If you tell a lover you cannot offer anything other than what is already known, they won’t believe you. That’s just how love works, it is the lie of possibilities.

The shopping cart rests in front of the dumpster in the alley. The bottle picker has strung a blanket between the dumpster and the fence leaning around it. He stands behind the blanket. His naked arms stretch above to the sky, not a sun or a moon, just all of it. The arms descend below the blanket. The hands return, one splays and stretches, feeling its limit, and the hand holding the shirt flicks the cloth carelessly over the fence into the alley. This scene is not possible without a Chinook coming warm off the Rockies. A car will pass soon to press the shirt into the dirty pavement, and Edmonton Trail does not end in Edmonton, but only a few more miles down the road in an industrial park on McKnight Boulevard.

I have seen that free form of undressing before. A younger body in a northern California mountain stream. Skinny-dipping! Goddamned skinny-dipping. There are free moments in life – but night kept coming and it gets cold in the mountains. It’s 5 PM, the bottle picker and I making moves. But I am the only one with a cupcake.

Oh, but it wasn’t a promise to the girls, just a hint of one. Does that make breaking it the larger sin?

Attack the hair – a hair attack! Run clippers with a #1 comb across the scalp, #2 for the mustache, a smaller machine for the ears, nose, and the wisps that big brother didn’t remove on the shiny runway down the middle of my skull. Not a lot of gray here, but not a lot of hair either. It is possible that I have more hair on my ass than on my head.

 

I take off my glasses to shave my head, am blind and so just close my eyes and run the machine erratically. Like life, the only method is the sheer amount of time spent on the endeavor. If you run a machine across your scalp for ten minutes, what could possibly remain? If you live too long, what is there left to believe in? Black hairs collect on the vanity and in the basin, they stick to toothpaste stuck beside the faucet.

I believe that I have unnaturally dirty ears.

Zits and fingers. The hunt for blackheads, white heads. Running a finger over little hills not yet discolored topography. Fewer now at 43 than 16. Though, not quite as loud as then, they still sing to me. You’re a little bit ugly. In the mirror, I hum back. Keep on the sunny side always on the sunny side. Fuck you, zits.

“You have questions. I have answers. You may not like them, and they may not be right. But I want to try and answer them,” I’d proclaim in the car just after pickup on visitation Saturdays. In those first Saturday morning minutes, I am false confidence, a lecturing adult cloaked in certainty because to show them what I don’t know is also a form of abuse, perhaps. Do I drive them to an empty apartment and point out the living room window? See that man asleep in the alley? I don’t know how not to become him. My father died a homeless alcoholic at 53. There is no strong reason to believe that I will become homeless. But if I can make it to 53 indoors and sober, that may be a simple, beautiful win. I can’t imagine they need to hear that.

So many face-to-face fights, so many phone fights, so many fights in front of the girls. So many accusations – all sprouted from fact. But they grew into a rain forest I couldn’t navigate. Why do I refuse to get a good job, they ask. It’s because I don’t want one, I know they’ve been told. Do I explain the price of a barrel of oil and its impact on a vulnerable economy to a 10 and an 8 year old?

One kind of question at one time so close to being able to be asserted: will you date – will you marry? “Marry” held so long and lifted so high in unison it sounded like “merry.” Little girls and their obsession with pairing off! I gave an honest answer: I couldn’t think of anything more frightening. I still can’t.

And finally, “why won’t you move with us to Edmonton?” But the answer isn’t because I don’t love you, and any conversation that starts from there is as incomprehensible as the world.

Trim the pubic hair? Groom the netherworld? For what? A few gray sons of bitches! Fuck you pubes! I can be cruel to myself, but not that cruel. This may be a cemetery, but I am no groundskeeper. Unruly bush, you remain!

A shower to stop the neck from itching and to soften the fingernails. They grow in spurts, I am certain. I will throw them on a spreadsheet and measure, but how? Day One: Cut. Day Two: Long. Day Three: Longer. Day Four: A little longer. Day ?: Too fucking long. And I disappear in showers. The heat, the water raining down and then steaming up, I am gone for twenty minutes. Not happy, absent. Dry off standing in the tub and then sit on the toilet seat to cut fingernails. In grade ten, a cheerleader told me while I was getting my ankles taped for basketball that I had ugly feet. I have not owned them since.

Sometimes, you don’t get to choose what you’re going to carry. So when you do get to, and if you can, put that shit down. Is that advice or child abuse? And, Jesus Christ, what’s safe to pick up? This life cannot be about avoidance, and it is 6 PM.

Dress. Keys. Finally, a spin around the apartment checking the emptiness for what might be forgotten. Window. The sleeping man is gone. He lives. Good luck, brother. The changing man, the dumpster man, the bottle picker is gone. His cart remains. He has hung a painting on the fence. I threw it in the dumpster yesterday. Left over from the last tenant, it had leaned against my small fridge for four months. Nothing special about it. It was a painting an old woman would have and couldn’t give away or keep when she went to the home in Bowness. The skinny dipper didn’t want it but has found a place for it.

Lock the door, down the steps, into November. Into the Tucson, bought for transporting girls on Saturdays. Down the alley, across Edmonton Trail North to Edmonton Trail South. It is just dark enough that the street lights are on. Right on Memorial, keep it slow under the bluff, no time for the radio. There is no courage there. Red light under the Centre Street Bridge, guarded by lions. There are lions in stories that I have read in pleasure and terror. Sunnyside Bank Park, the war Memorial. Crosses and stars in rows by the road. They are lit by portable flood lights hooked to generators, fenced temporarily in orange plastic netting. A passing wall of ugly, and behind: Cops, soldiers, Girl Guides, families milling.

Right on 5A street. To the end past the rink. Then left on 3rd, row houses, hundred-year old temporary worker’s houses. A bike on the roof of one. Bought cheap in the 70s and 80s, occupied by those who loved the neighbourhood enough not to sell in rising markets. The next block, the south side, an entire block filled with apartment buildings. Someone died, someone sold and the wood-framed houses toppled into brick apartments. But the neighborhood is not yet lost. Past 7th to the even numbered side of the street. Park in a spot for what, the seventh time? Turn off the car, close the door, up the steps. The light is on in the kitchen, candles in the living room. Take the steps quiet enough to prevent the dog from barking. Knock because there isn’t a bell. The dog barks. Waiting for the opening door. Waiting, waiting and then I say, “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”


Mike Jones is a short story writer living in Calgary. He’s working on a new collection of stories, wondering what he learned from trying to write the last collection.

UPON READING FUKUYAMA’S LINE //THE END OF HISTORY WILL BE A VERY SAD TIME// by Michael Sheehan

in Fiction/Issue Two

My house, this place and body,

I’ve come in mourning to be born in.

– Wm. H. Gass

//CONSEQUENTLY EVERY HUMAN ACTION//

The last attack was a mall; now this nail parlor they were talking about in those studio-hushed tones on the commute news. Pixelated images of lines of ducked heads crossing a strip mall parking lot appeared and then dissolved on the windshield’s lower right frame[1]. Police were saying the shooter was no threat to the public, that the shooter was dead, that the shooter had shot himself and three others, not in that order, killing two and seriously injuring a third.

The commute was slowed because of lane closures, which MTRAK[2] called “routine maintenance” on the windshield’s lower left. Canton’s car jerked, stuttered, like a hitch in the invisible chain pulling him to work. He looked up from his synthetic cappuccino. SAMi said, “I’m sorry. It is a bit bumpy.” The words “Poor Connection” flashed briefly onscreen.

“It’s fine,” Canton said.

“I’m sorry. I could not understand what you said.”

“Nothing.”

“I’m sorry. I could not understand what you said.”

He knew better than to repeat it. There was another jerk in the car’s forward motion, and he could see looking out that the cars around him were, in uneven rhythm, stuttering forward as well. The images on the screen briefly froze and the music slipped into a pulse’s repeated beat, a stuck note. The revolution of a white rectangle—followed by the ring of fading remnants—around a circle indicated the system’s brief buffer, then his personalized playlist resumed.

Canton tapped on the screen, swiped left, left, right, brought up the picture of his wife, Antietam, and their son Raleigh, the two of them beneath cherry blossoms, Antietam holding him up, his pudgy wristrolls, his hand reaching up to touch and crush and tear away the synthetic sakura petals, the Obama Monument out of focus in the background.

It was easy to love a picture, to tap the throbbing heart icon along the picture’s frame, to proclaim his feelings on social media, but it was harder to love the reality behind or outside this image. Things between he and Antietam had been strained since Raleigh’s birth, the easy independence they’d had before had become a tense need for each other, a sometimes bitter resentment of the other’s even momentary freedom. They were tired all the time, and Raleigh was nearly 18 months old now. After Antietam started sending him links to listicles with titles like “Ten Things You Need to do to Save Your Marriage After Children,” and “The Five Things Divorced Couples Say They Wish They’d Done,” and “The 52 Most Important Steps to Being Happy Parents,” they had agreed six weeks ago to take a test online that would tell them how in sync they were across various datapoints: wants, needs, goals, values, triggers, regrets, hopes, dreams, wishes, emotions, and love language. The test was multiple choice, with questions either vague or narrowly specific and boxes you could tap and fill with a glowing checkmark.

They had scored terribly.

Their wants and needs were unfit and unmet; their hopes, goals, dreams, and wishes were aimed in opposite directions; their triggers overlapped slightly, but were linked to different particular parts of their daily lives and routine; their regrets and emotions had the most overlap, but still their score was only in the 80th percentile for compatibility; they spoke different love languages. They had no recent intimacy, no shared affection, no postparenthood sex. Their financial statuses were similar but how they felt about their statuses differed.

For almost a week after they’d sat side by side tapping checkmarks and discovering they were far apart in all the ways that counted, they didn’t speak or communicate other than terse texts and sporadic snaps about renewing the ecodiaper subscription and downloading an app that could quantize Raleigh’s growth rate. But then Antietam started sending him links to articles with titles like “Recovering Romance,” and “Ten Tips to Improve Your Love Life After Children,” and “What Couples Who’ve Stayed Together for 30 Years Say is the Key to Their Happiness (Hint: Sex),” and “Positions for Parents NSFW,” and “Sex After Children, A Primer.”

So without needing or wanting to say more or discuss it too directly (for fear of thereby ruining the emergent intimacy in its infancy), Canton sent her a calendar invite to “watch Solaris,” which had once long ago been their secret code for sex when within earshot of roommates. She accepted the request, he ordered an ubersitter, opentabled an 8pm at LeuvenSpoonful, her favorite Belgian bistro, and after sharing two 75cl bottles of Brasserie de Rochefort (a red-capped 6 they were not that into and a green-capped 8 they both enjoyed), they slipped out of their street clothes and into their oculi rifts and had intercourse for several minutes before falling asleep.

Her watch alerted her the next morning that she was pregnant, but she didn’t say anything. Though she didn’t know it, Canton had linked their healthstats (a privacy setting of their healthbook profiles), and so, sitting in his car his watch notified him of her labwork’s results, congratulated him on the happy news. Forget that it was illegal to have two children without a religious exemption, this was a Trojan horse they’d unknowingly downloaded in their attempt to troubleshoot their marriage’s post-progeny bugs.[3] They were trying to alter the algorithm that found Canton was not the answer to Antietam’s search, and vice versa. They wanted to get out ahead of the autocomplete that negged their unasked question, “what happens after?”[4]

And so how would they face the fact of this future?

Despite the abnormal system glitches and turbulence, he arrived and SAMi slotted the smartcar into his assigned space and he stepped onto the peoplemover and then elevated to his office.

 

//FROM SOME ACT OF THE IMAGINATION//

Canton’s building, albeit unfinished, was the third living building to be installed in the National Harbor. Tiktaalik rose out of the harbor’s water—which it fed off for energy and which it also dynamically responded to as sea levels rose over time, its supports a sort of proto-leg that could extend, raising or lowering the building’s harbor-edge—several stories into the sky where its feathers and fins circulated to capture wind and condensation, its solar scales sucking up what sun there was when there was sun. Though the building boasted an alien vision of the city’s space, his company’s offices within it were obscenely atavistic, structured and run like 19th century clerk’s offices, where the fe/male and agender employees were stationed at smartdesks not near windows—the building’s solar efficiency meant no natural light made it in during daylight hours; the sui generis power lit phosphorescent wall panels instead all along the terra nullius out beyond the company’s quadrangle footage—and expected to arrive and work an eight-hour shift despite years of research and studies and advocacy that the 21st century economy made most sense when based on digital workspaces, flexible time, a multi-device driven interface across employees without corporate overhead or polluting commute mileage, etc. Nonetheless, the baseline expectation was a minimum of 24 and an average of 32 hours a week in the office at the desk, though Canton would’ve preferred not to.

There was a persistent piss-inducing burble from the aquaponic and the hydroponic elements of the building, which were integrated into the open spaces of the building and so were pretty much all throughout the areas Canton passed to get to his desk. There were, as yet, no fish or plants being farmed here, since the design was still not fully constructed; it was just water circulating in tanks within the walls. The building’s feathers and fins were static and harvested nothing thus far. It was a big, expensive, strange structure that mostly sat functionless and awaited funding.

 

#thesiege had reached Canton’s office sometime during the night. Their servers had been surrounded by ransomware, all their information held hostage, and so there was no work to be done all morning as Canton sat near the streaming screens[5] that paralleled the ribbons of bioluminescent flora as a transhuman team of network security was google-eyed with diligent coding, trying to break through, to reach the imperiled information, their magnetic-implanted fingers spasming slightly over screens like they were tapping invisible strings, vibrating messages through air and space. Most of the time these magnetic fingers were only useful for collecting paperclips and sensing the grid yawing through the walls, or so they’d tell you, the ecolectricity and the quantalytics humming in the air above. As for the origins of #thesiege, pretty much it was anyone’s guess. Divine dispensation was almost as likely as the Chinese government or like some zombified noname working for hourly wages in a squat Russian office park someplace.

Because the bioluminescent lighting took time to glow and gradually increased in intensity during the day, the first notice was what seemed to be slight blurring or marking, spotting, blemishes on the walls’ bioglow. This made the process of revelation that much more mysterious, as it seemed almost as if the figures and the text were emerging, the words being written, the images being drawn. The walls themselves were alive and so it should not have been possible to write on them, to change the uniformity of their luminescent emissions, but there it was: scribbled, repetitive drawings of horses, of hyena, aurochs, of even a megaloceros, lines and lines to convey motion, strings of dots or maybe a primitive star chart, an exacting simulacra of Lascaux or so it seemed, and then one floor up and on the other side of Tiktaalik’s living lobby the blemishes resolved into trim lines then into letters in a fine, digital font, words sprawling across and down and all over the wall’s evolving light:

//All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?//

Elsewhere arose:

//Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict and cross between plant and ghost.//

And then the third emergent bit of bioluminescent blemish read:

//What does your body proclaim of your soul? Is not your soul poverty and filth and wretched contentment?//

Finally, the dying light spelled out:

//The last man lives longest.//

It was viral, whatever it was. Language as infestation, some sort of deep hack, a malware, an expedited process of evolution, history rearising. But how did they hack the organisms living in the walls? How did they infect this pure and simple ecology with the memory of human progress?

It had to be part of #thesiege[6], though nothing like it had ever been described in other attacks. Any answer other than that was, well, what could it be?

 

//LANGUAGE IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE//

Though at first it was open to everyone, the Deep Space Initiative had had to put a filter in place after the crash. Like any AI or bot or open comment stream[7], trolls had porned it up, clogged the intended message with hatespeech and rape threats, violent historical references reduced to abstractions—Hitler, Nazi, ISIS, KKK—that for whatever reason still held power. So they threw all of those messages out and invited the public to create an account and apply to have his/her message included, and then only after a multi-step user identification process and a couple layers of content screening could any hoi polloi project his/her voice out on the unmanned probe in the hope that someone would find the simple mechanism that would contain the millions of messages from Earth and be able to access its information. The idea was an update or a reboot of the Voyager Golden Record, but democratized and crowd-sourced and crowd-funded, since there was no longer any federal support for space missions, especially those that merely acted as a time capsule. The messages would be transmittable in Morse, in all the world’s active languages (and two or three dead ones), and in binary[8]. It was maybe a ploy, since all visitors to DSI’s site were repeatedly offered the chance to donate to the mission and help DSI launch the Salviati probe and there was no guarantee—in any meaningful sense—that any message would ever actually be included, or even really that there was any rocket with the technological capability to make the trip. Sitting at work, holding a multiverse inside, chaos, a dancing star, unable to express it or ever explain it to any other person, Antietam got a link in a msg from her coworker, and shortly thereafter donated to the mission, sending first the equivalent of $3, or 3USDE, via Ethereum and then 5USDE and then 3USDE again. What she found was it wasn’t about the message being delivered, ever being received—because there was that issue, too, the overwhelmingly remote possibility that the universe contained any thing at all that was capable of hearing her voice in any language many years from now across a great distance—but really just the expression, the telling. The compressed recording of her voice, along with who knows how many others, would be adrift for tens of thousands of years before it passed by the nearest star. By the time any being could be believed to find it, the recordings would be from long-dead persons of a probably long-dead civilization, but still it was an attractive idea. She couldn’t help herself. It was, for one thing, a deeply hopeful act, a statement of her belief in the existence of a future, even if one she wasn’t in and would never know. But she wanted to believe. She wanted to believe. She wanted to believe.

 

 

//STANDING APART FROM THE GENUS OF MORAL ACTIONS //

By the afternoon of #thesiege, even the streaming screens were glitching. They could do no work. Then, right before rush hour, three suicide bombers hit DCA, which meant no street traffic within a two-mile radius of the Capitol and the White House, no Metro, flights redirected to Dulles and BWI and beyond. Canton was stuck on the George W Bush Parkway, with glitchy service compounding the traffic overloading the MTRAK and causing large-scale system crashes. His car had not moved more than a few feet at a time in the last half an hour.

He tried to send a message to Antietam, telling her how he was stuck and would be late because: bombing. The progress bar stayed stuck at around 80% along the bottom of the windshield; finally the words “Message send failure” flashed across his screen.

The luminous golden dome of a Scientology Temple hung like a gibbous moon above the tops of trees. It was easy to mistake its shape for a mosque, though there were no more mosques other than in ruins in images out of the caliphate or on the Arabian peninsula.

You couldn’t help but think sometimes that these transit bombings and attacks were less about the immediate impact and more about shutting down the whole system for a day or more. It’d be curfews and no public gatherings, business closures all over town, etc. The transit hits seemed more systemic than personal, despite the high tally of in-situ casualties.

His only choice other than a night in the narrow swivel seat at the center of the smartcar was to take the car offline and try to selfdrive it via surfaceroutes. He restarted the car and began navigating it along the wide rim of the MTRAK and finally down the steep ramp. Now that he was down on the ground below the compression on the MTRAK, he slowly piloted the smartcar across the rutted debris and through empty streets. He had selfdriven before, but never in this area, never so close to his office. He continued on along the broken roads until he saw rising before him the grim skeleton of Bezos Stadium, the coliseum shape of it, grayblack against the dull sky. Matte striations of filtered light slipped through the spiral parking structure that had been built beside it in an age of optimism and dumb profiteering. Concrete columns intersected the rays of grainy light beneath a low, flat ceiling that pressed down, seeming to occlude the sky, the horizon available as a dissipating edge, where the light blurred into nothing.

He was headed home to Antietam, to Raleigh, and to the potentiality inside her. But there was more than system glitches acting as impediment: the data had said they were not a match. When they looked at the hard, quantified, measurable reality, they were not supposed to be sharing any life together, and there was no future for them to grow into. They could do a deeper dive into the data but it didn’t seem like that would matter. He knew this was irrefutable, was solid as anything around him right then, that when they stacked their individual data side by side the answer was plain: there should be no them, they should not be together (married or as parents), someone had to act responsibly in the light of the data they’d already received and so it should be him and so he should leave—but he didn’t want to. The truth of their incompatibility was as evident as the massive concrete shape he’d pulled up alongside, and maybe all the Message Send Failures were fate signaling to him, but for no reason he knew he felt a push against it inside, a welling up of something that seemed only capable of saying no.

No.

It was an impossible position, to know what was right and yet to not will it.

He was only able to get the smartcar up the first two floors of the garage before its heat sensor showed red and he had to stop. He walked the third and fourth spirals, walked out finally onto the roof and into the olivaceous sunshine. From here, Canton could see the ruin of the east, the renatured north, the turbulent sea to the south. A flock of birds was disturbed out of the wilds where the National Arboretum once was, the collapsed capitol columns somewhere in that overwhelming green, that vast reclaimed landscape bracketing the busted beltway, the neighborhoods fallen into the void, somewhere sunk in the understory.

This was the province of the poor in all its reality. He had many times heard what the lives of those in the ex-exurbs were like, left out in the storms that passed and ravaged, but here he could see the tops of the trees that shaded them, if anyone really lived out there at all.

It was strange. There was no noise. There were sounds, but there was no noise.

The river people on the Anacostia, if there were really any left there after the floods, were nowhere to be seen. The only sign of them was a desolate kibasha that floated gracefully in a calm pocket of the water’s whitecaps near the wooded shore of Kingman Island. The wilds continued as far as he could see, encircling the enclave that is DC, demarcating it from the corrupted places far to the east occupied by those pushed past Fairlawn and Woodland and Skyland and out toward Lincoln Cemetery and beyond[9], along the edge of the District’s diamond shape, past the irregularly tall boundary stone, one of the final markers of the map which was completed in 1791 and whose history, albeit overgrown and forgotten, was still signified by these hidden, dirty pillars.

He could see, too, to the south, the collapsed v of the Whitney Houston Memorial Bridge, the litter of shattered stone that was the congressional cemetery, and he could see the smoke still rising over DCA.

And there was Tiktaalik, an enclosed and isolate ecosystem, an anthroposystem, a holon. Since construction on it first began, where Buzzard Point Park had been, the shore had receded far enough that now it looked as if its body were poised out over the water, it looked as if it were walking into the waves, returning to the water, abandoning life on land.

 

ENDOSYMBIOSIS

“You can’t have two at a time,” the waitress, Daytona, said. “You need to either finish that one or I can take the bottle.”

“I can’t just order another now?”

“It’s the law.”

“Here,” he finished his draft Moon Shot hefeweizen obscenely in front of her. “Sorry about that.” He offered her the glass.

“So you do want another one then?”

The models advertising Vitalis are arranged around the Oscar-winning actor who played Batman in one of the many bad versions, though he won the Oscar for his role as the shipcaptain taken hostage by Libyan pirates in the Mediterranean, who on screen was cold and steely-eyed and outlasted their graphically-depicted torture until a Special Ops team in Mesa Verde and a quartet of synced drones over open ocean had executed the pirates with simultaneous headshots, only wounding the captain in his chest, neck, arm, and leg (though in reality the captain reported his captors had treated him with almost deference, that he had seen in them a crushed humanity, the result of the world’s depraved indifference toward their extreme poverty and the violence that had ravaged them and their families and communities in the years since the Arab Spring, that he had felt the dramatic dronestrike that had saved him was an illustration of the problem, the distance that allowed us to be so uncaring and detached from the real lives of these very desperate men), but the models are laughing and drinking (one a highball, one a snifter, one a beer, one a bourbon, one a champagne flute, one a German stein, one a weighty wine goblet, one a fusion cocktail) as the Oscar-winning actor described the benefits of Vitalis, ending on the dubious but repeated tagline, //Live. Forever.//

“Yeah, that’s why I,” but she cut him off and turned back toward the circular bar with its faux-wood trim and the stadium-style three-sided chandelier of curved screens, each showing a different sport’s game. Canton’s line of sight was almost directly centered on the asymptotic edge where two screens never quite converged; he could see a flattened basketball game’s flurried progress into the fourth quarter and a Holbein’s skull of a classic tennis match, the 2008 Wimbledon final. Drafts were 1.99USDE and the frozen breaded cheddar-stuffed jalapenos were half a dozen for 3USDE. A newsfeed crawled across the two screens describing another passenger flight hacked by cyberterrorists and crashed into the Indian Ocean.

After standing on the stadium and surveying the lost landscape of the north and the east, Canton selfdrove in no particular direction, trying to let the surfaceroutes lead him. They led him to It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere and its Happy 24Hour drink and app specials.

And what would he tell Antietam? Should he go home, face her, or should be begin to be gone? He didn’t have any sense any more what would happen when he left this bar. He was suppurating in a feeling he couldn’t quite pin down, that what he wanted was subsumed by the data, that his life from here out would only be ever more determined, his role in it ever more reactive, passive, a smartcar merely sensing objects and knowing when to stop or go, with no sense of itself outside of the system.

He was a body made of many moving parts, a complex system of chemical and biological interactions, all quantified and trackable, all datacaptured and uploaded to apps and enmeshed in the paradisal cloud, the #neverforgetting info atman; from the moment of birth onward he’d been an ecological site for whole eons of bacterial development; his CNS and skeletal architecture did the acting, the motion, the movement, kept his body motile in space. And here in the franchise bar in the strip mall just off the exit ramp from the MTRAK, this was his environment, his own ecological site, that on which he fed and drank, the light that helped him navigate, hid his shame, the circulated and temperature-controlled air he breathed and that allowed his business causal to be a comfortable second-skin. But where, exactly, was he? If his body could be quantified, both internally and externally, as integrally connected to a vast and depersonalized system, where exactly was what made him him? It was a stupid question, and he understood why they didn’t allow two beers at a time, for fear of soul-seeking, maybe, the tennis match long since ended with a collapse to court and a handshake, autographed balls being lobbed up into the stands, their luminous color tracing the arc of their disappearance.

And so then who was he? What did he want?

He did not want these discount beers, was only ordering to make himself feel like he was here at Happy 24Hour for a reason, making the best of bad traffic service and another system-failure-inducing strike but really each beer was a twofold way of not facing forward, not looking at himself in the Check-Ur-Self-B4-U-Wreck-Ur-Selfie™ mirror and not considering what was the future he wanted[10], what was the world he wanted to step out and into? And would he be able to shape that world or only ever be shaped by it?

 

//NOT A BODY, BUT THE ACT OF A BODY//

Thank you for creating a Deep Space Initiative account. You can record your audio message by clicking below. You can listen to your message and re-record it as many times as you like. Click save when you are done. Click submit to upload your message to the Salviati Message Bank for release. We appreciate your support for our mission and we thank you for including your message.

//My unhappiness is like a lead apron laid upon my chest. The x-ray sees right through me, my alien bones, my glowing architecture, the self beneath my self, these lines of light, but no light gets through my unhappiness, no radiation, no feeling but the weight of it pressing down, a dark imprint against the light within me.//

//So much about my life feels already past, so little about the future feels like it is my own, like my will can do anything now but want.//

//And now: new life. I know it should be happy, but I can’t help feeling or fearing a displacement of my self. After Raleigh, I felt changed, like I subtended his self. I occupy the place between these two, one son born and another to come.//

//Law of identity: I can’t be two people in the same body. I can’t be different from myself and the same with another. Law of non-contradiction: I can’t be me and not me.//

//I am become nothing, nothing, nothing.//

//A whole soul growing inside me, my womb an ecosystem unto itself, sustaining life, but the dual nature of my soul’s self takes away from or dilutes me, I. My identity is twinned, is reliant, is aligned—a moon orbiting another life, governing its tides, and watching over it as it sleeps.//

//And why send these words to you at all? To have an impact on existence, project my words and my will outward, shape or at least smudge the future? Maybe a little. Even if far away, even if not for me. I wanted to think about a future, send a message out, not to my unborn son but a message of my own, private but preserved, a truth that may maybe never ever be heard, but one which would outlive me.//

//I can’t communicate it to Canton, can’t say how I feel, because how do you name this feeling? How do you reject the binary—mother/not mother, self/other—and occupy the space between? How can I quantify this love and this desire to assert my soul’s self against the pull of the waves washing over?//

//I heard an astronaut describe being in space, in total darkness, the complete lightlessness that must surround my voice now. These words, wherever and whenever they are, can become a part of everything. Forever free.//

//I can only imagine you,

can only believe

despite knowing better that

my words

can reach you, that

across time and

across distance

you and I

are

here

together,

connected,

these words are your words,

in your head,

whoever you are,

wherever you are,

whenever you are.

And maybe that is enough.//

 

 


 

Michael Sheehan has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.

 


  1. In the screen’s lower left, the models are playing football, and as the speaker describes the side effects of Vitalis the one-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback zings a tight spiral up and out of frame before it descends neatly back into the hands of a body that crosses close in the forefront. The models rejoice in unconvincing bro dances. This is happiness? Adult men, men in their 30s at a minimum, the MVP himself probably 60 by now, these men gather in an urban park and zip passes at each other and grapple like linemen in their cotton shorts and unmarked sneakers? Huzzah, the models toss up their hands. Great catch the models might cry; great pass. It is a luxuriated image—this historyless propaganda, selling a nostalgia for a past and a present, neither of which exist—these models, this urbane setting, the idyll fantasy that a Super Bowl MVP quarterback would have a group of beautiful bros in workout clothes gather on Sundays to play touch football.
  2. “Invariable and uninterrupted service.”™
  3. if [every human action is an event]
    if [every event has a cause]
    }[every human action has a cause]
    if [every event with a cause = ¬free]
    }[human action = ¬free]
  4. what happens after death
    what happens after we die
    what happens after divorce
    what happens after love actually
    what happens after love never dies
  5. In a streaming window at the screen’s lower right, The Xtreme Rescue Team had roped up to climb the chiseled face of exposed granite that had once been deep under the glacier. The actual foot of the ice was someplace in a high fold between the choppy Himalayas, even smaller this year than last, which was maybe why the two tourists got trapped out there. They’d been on a Vanishing Ice day trip, which was only supposed to be a three hour tour, but somehow out on the ice things had gotten complicated and two days later, out of water and food, they were huddled together above the moulin the tour leader had disappeared down. It may have been an obvious mistake (made from too much comfort with the shifting landscape of ice, causing the Norwegian national to forget the ice did not consider itself a tourist destination) or something else; though the science wasn’t there to back it up, there were suggestions that the glacier had opened up beneath them or that it had widened rapidly, that the flow of the water through the picturesque Grand Canyon they’d hiked up to to take selfies by and which terminated in the abrupt descent at the mouth of the moulin had increased so much that the ice was melting off by the minute and the geography slipping and deflating and changing even as the tour guide had set his first cramponed foot down on the ledge above the water disappearing into the disappearing ice, to offer his guests a human-sized comparison for scale. When the XRT found them and interviewed them—on the ice for the effect of it, rather than just getting them down (because that was how the show imposed drama—and ad breaks) low enough to be loaded onto the Spinning Spool, which was a poorly-designed drone and no improvement on the helicopters it had replaced up at high altitude, since the spinning spools of its name and their flight’s reliance on the Magnus effect meant a pretty turbulent descent down and more often than not a crash landing—they described the accident as:
    TOURIST #1
    I didn’t see him fall.
    XRT [LAZER]
    Did he slip? He didn’t call out?
    XRT [TANK]
    Probably couldn’t hear him from this heighth. Height. Is it height or heighth?
    TOURIST #2
    It was like, he just blinked out. He was there and then he wasn’t there. Nothing else happened. He didn’t fall, he just, it was, he blinked out.
  6. By May of 1863, the citizens of Vicksburg, dug into their clay caves, were down to eating mules, horses, and dogs. Ulysses S. Grant, who successfully oversaw the siege, would later write “I now determined…to incur no more losses.”
  7. Decorated dickpicks and face swaps, twitter rants and twitter feuds and twitter storms and hacktivisim. Social media psychology experiments and hashtag activism, the balance between oligarchy and consumer culture, the myth of agency. Technology as inhibitor, technology as mass convenience, technology as infantilization, technology as facilitating passive response. Uploaded consciousness and the quantified self, the digital soul disembodied.
  8. After Antietam, a Proclamation:
    //  Whereas, на twentysecond день सितंबर के, in anno Domini un sol mil de vuit centenar de seixanta per i la de dos,
    מנשר הוצא
    من قبل الرئيس
    de los estados unidos, enthaltend, 다른 것들 사이, zifwatazo, 以机智:
    01010100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01101111 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01100110 01101001 01110010 01110011 01110100 00100000 01100100 01100001 01111001 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01001010 01100001 01101110 01110101 01100001 01110010 01111001 00101100 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01111001 01100101 01100001 01110010 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01001100 01101111 01110010 01100100 00100000 01101111 01101110 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101111 01110101 01110011 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01100101 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100 00100000 01101000 01110101 01101110 01100100 01110010 01100101 01100100 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110011 01101001 01111000 01110100 01111001 00101101 01110100 01101000 01110010 01100101 01100101 00101100 00100000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110000 01100101 01110010 01110011 01101111 01101110 01110011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01100100 00100000 01100001 01110011 00100000 01110011 01101100 01100001 01110110 01100101 01110011 00100000 01110111 01101001 01110100 01101000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01111001 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 00100000 01101111 01110010 00100000 01100100 01100101 01110011 01101001 01100111 01101110 01100001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01110000 01100001 01110010 01110100 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01100001 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 00101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110000 01100101 01101111 01110000 01101100 01100101 00100000 01110111 01101000 01100101 01110010 01100101 01101111 01100110 00100000 01110011 01101000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 01101110 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110010 01100101 01100010 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101001 01101111 01101110 00100000 01100001 01100111 01100001 01101001 01101110 01110011 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01010101 01101110 01101001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 01110011 00101100 shall be then thenceforward and forever free//
  9. Lincoln’s body, when last it was seen, after several exhumations, was still recognizable thirtysome years later; his gloves had rotted, his suit had mouldered down in the grave, but his beard and hair were intact, his mole was there, too, his face badly bruised even then from the way the bullet had broken his bones. It was like he was a mummy, it was like he was a ghost, it was like he would remain, forever, some semblance of himself just out of sight, just underground, his existence not ended, his soul and body still one yet, somewhere.

10. Merleau-Ponty:

  1. History flows neither from the past nor to the future alone: it reverses its course and, when you get right down to it, flows from all the presents.
     2. The flesh is at the heart of the world.
     3. True reflection presents me to myself not as idle and inaccessible subjectivity, but as identical with my presence in the world and to others, as I am now realizing it: I am all that I see, I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation, but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation, and through them, all the rest.
   4.  If this world is a poem, it is not because we see the meaning of it at first but on the strength of its chance occurrences and paradoxes.

A Week in the Life of a Slug

in Issue Two/Nonfiction

 

Monday

I came into work this morning on 95, taking 395 via the Capital Beltway, before exiting South Washington. This takes you on the southwest side of the Pentagon, directly under the flight path of American Flight 77. On your right you can see where the limestone exterior walls are a shade lighter. Arlington Cemetery is on the left.  As we turn onto the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac, JFK’s tomb is directly behind us, and the Lincoln Memorial—framed by an unusually late-season full bloom of cherry blossoms—lies directly in front of us. The driver knows Henry Bacon lets us cut over to Constitution quicker than 23rd(still don’t know who Henry Bacon is), so he’s not new to this. And look! There’s a trucker convention next to the Vietnam Memorial. Then it’s past the Daughters of the American Revolution, all the way up 18th, which is where I tell the driver to let me out, just before we get to Pennsylvania Avenue.

No money is shared. Nothing is exchanged. No feedback or stars or tips. No conversation this morning, or really most mornings. I have no idea who my driver is, or what he is doing in our nation’s capital, and this unknowing seems a crucial part of the reason this whole thing even works. This enterprise is known as slugging. And I am a slug.

Slugging is legalized, recognized, ad hoc hitchhiking. Unionized bus drivers coined the terms ‘slug’ in the 1970’s. A slug is a rider. The riders waiting at bus stops would happily get in the car—any car—that would take them up to the Pentagon. The fact that the ride was free was of less import than the fact that the ride was here, now, ready to go. Of course, the bus drivers didn’t like this, because it meant less bus fares from paying passengers. This was especially grating for the bus drivers because the slug drivers were effectively taking advantage of the centralized nature of the bus stop pick up routes—slug drivers knew where the people would be located, and that they would be in need of a ride. Hence, the derogatory ‘slug’. Back in the early days, slugging was basically Springfield to the Pentagon; your options were limited. But getting to the Pentagon gave you access to the Metro, which could deliver you to various points in and around D.C. That was enough.

Today, there are multiple points of egress throughout Northern Virginia (even as what constitutes ‘Northern Virginia’ expands ever southward and westward), just as there are various points of ingress in Arlington and the District of Columbia. This is mostly cribbed from articles cited on Wikipedia, which also erroneously states that hybrid vehicles are currently allowed to drive the HOV lanes without additional passengers (this regulation changed in 2014), so reader beware, and take this history of slugs with a measure of salt.

 

Tuesday

It was a bus this morning, mainly because the unpublished etiquette of slugging frowns upon the use of personal electronic devices larger than a phone, and I had work to do on my laptop on the way into the office. I’ll confess to enjoying the looks of pity and expressions of empathy I receive when I divulge that my daily roundtrip commute totals just under two hours on good days, and frequently approaches the three-hour mark on the regularly-occurring bad days. But secretly, and perhaps shamefully, I mostly enjoy my commute. I usually work in the morning, sending out emails to clients and colleagues well before I know they’ll be in the office. And contrary to LinkedIn’s assertion that such a practice is merely virtue signaling for the striver demographic, I have actually found that my early-morning emails receive a much better response rate, especially when I need a quick turnaround or a timely response. To be sure, buses are slower, and this morning is no exception. What would normally take me 40 minutes in a slug takes over an hour. However, the fact that I’ve already sent out a half dozen emails, edited a weekly newsletter, and RSVP’d for an industry roundtable tomorrow evening lessens the impact of a 75 minute trip into the District.

Thanks to the decentralized nature of slug routes and the fact that the pick-up points overlap with the bus routes, I don’t have to rely on a bus to take me home in the afternoon. The existing public commuter bus system, which is slow but relatively reliable, supports and enables a transit ecosystem in which slugging is possible. Without the knowledge that at some point, all else failing, a bus will eventually come along and take you to where you need to go, it is unlikely that slug riders would be willing to take a chance and hope that a slug driver will pick them up on a given morning. And absent the existence of slug riders in a central location, it is unlikely that a slug driver would be willing to go out of his way to organize a carpool with the same flexibility inherent in slugging. The sometimes-plodding, ever-unionized, and seemingly inefficient public option enables the existence of a much more efficient, cost-effective, and faster private option. Much as it ever was.

The Swamp

 

Wednesday

The primary decision I face each morning is which commuter lot to drive to. The 234 lot is nearest to me, about 12 minutes away depending on whether I leave early enough to avoid the school zones on my way. It is the preferred lot for riders living near Quantico Marine Corps base and has a steady flow of both riders and drivers heading north to the Pentagon. The other option is the Telegraph Road/Horner Road lot, which is about 20 minutes away but has more bus lines in the morning and more slug drivers in the afternoon. Making the wrong choice can cost you upwards of 40 minutes, and despite what I just said about not hating my commute, I’d rather not be commuting, all else being equal. If I need to get into the office as quickly as possible, I’ll do 234, and take my chances on catching a bus in the afternoon. If I know that I need to be home as soon as possible after work, I’ll likely go to Telegraph/Horner.

This morning, I decide on Telegraph/Horner. Once there, I see that the slug line to the Pentagon is moving quickly, so I make my way to that line. I stand just behind a man in fatigues who, if my limited knowledge of military insignia doesn’t fail me, is a corporal in the United States Army. In many senses, the military is the lifeblood of slugging, with the Pentagon being both its birthplace as well as its most frequent destination. Riding with a fellow slug or a driver in full fatigues is common. I’d thank him for his service, but the restriction on speaking outside of a driver-initiated conversation outweighs even the debt of gratitude we owe our nation’s service men and women.

Tonight I am attending an industry roundtable for which I have previously RSVP’d. I was, that is, until a minor medical emergency arose at home that required my attention and presence. After clearing my calendar and making sure that I’d be available for a conference call, I contacted the multi-state inter-regional transit authority, which has a program called “Guaranteed Ride Home”. This program, which is funded by states, municipalities in the region, and the Federal government allows registrants to make use of a taxi cab four times per year, or once per quarter, at no cost to the rider (other than a tip, which is both expected and appreciated). After calling the transit authority, I receive a message from a taxi cab company who informs me that my driver will be outside my office in three minutes. I take the elevator down, get into the wrong cab, get out, and then get into the right cab, which takes me back to Telegraph/Horner. I arrive home in time to avert any scheduling crisis owing to the medical mishap. All is well, all is well.

 

Thursday

Despite slugging’s self-police prohibition against slug riders speaking unless spoken to by the driver, the astute rider can pick up on some clues that may serve as an indicator of the driver’s willingness to engage in a conversation, as well as the topics a rider might broach. Of all such signals, I’d estimate that the radio station is the most reliable indicator of a political affiliation, as well as the driver’s willingness to engage in conversation. Spotify playlists or albums, audiobooks, or silence do little to betray the driver’s sensibilities; the only meaning that can be derived from such is the fact that that’s what the drivers wants to listen to. But if they listen to a radio station, they may be telling you something. A guide, of sorts:

WTOP 103.5: D.C. area news, from Richmond to Baltimore, from the Chesapeake to the Shenandoah. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s and when it breaks.This driver is actually making a statement that they don’t want to make a statement. It’s the radio station equivalent of a damp beige blanket being dropped over the warm embers of political fire; vanilla extract used to drown out all other ideological flavors that may manifest; a panacea of anodynity so overpowering in its blandness that everyone knows not to say a thing.
WAMU 88.5:Probably left leaning, and would entertain conversation about the topic being discussed, especially if the topic is of particular local concern and has limited relation to politics or international affairs. Note that this only applies to the NPR station that simulcasts during the morning commute; if they are listening to an NPR podcast, they are practically begging you to ask them about the topic of the podcast.
Bloomberg 99.1: All business, all the time.Allows the mid-level executive to entertain the illusion that he is receiving a personal, private daily briefing in the style of daily briefings that C-suite executives might have received as recently as 15 years ago.  This driver is perfectly pleased to make your acquaintance and may later attempt to add you to his personal LinkedIn Network. So that you, reader, may know more about me, this is the station that I would tune into most mornings, were ever I to become a driver.
WGTS 91.9 Christian Music Radio:I’ll admit to some surprise at the ethnic and racial diversity of the drivers who tune in to radio with an explicitly Christian worldview and purpose, a surprise which is likely the result of my own experience growing up in the suburbs of D___, where Christian radio was synonymous with white Evangelical Christianity. But based on the placards of saints and bumper stickers adorning their cards, drivers tuning in to this station include Egyptian Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, Ghanaian Pentecostals, Latin American Roman Catholics, and the occasional white Evangelical with whom I’m more familiar. I don’t speak to these drivers both out of respect for the rules of slug etiquette, along with a desire not be on the receiving end of proselytization.
WFJK-FM 106.7 The Fan:G-d—-t Redskins. Seriously, just g-d—-t all to h–l. The f—–g Eagles (THE EAGLES!) are now god’s gift to this midnight green and charcoal silver earth and what the h–l is Snyder doing about it? Not a d–n thing, that’s what. RIP, burgundy and gold.

Friday

I’m nearly certain that the impetus for the no-speaking-unless-spoken-to rule for slugs has its origins in the ubiquity of politics in the D.C. scene. And not just because tastemakers and connoisseurs of etiquette have declared politics and religion to be the archetypal taboos of polite conversation. Rather, it has to do with the proximity of politics. Two persons sharing a ride in nearly any other city could disagree on politics, and their disagreement would likely extend no further than a matter of who they voted for. But when you catch a ride into D.C., there is a decent chance that the person giving you a ride filed an FEC disclosure for a PAC affiliated with the candidate you oppose, that one of your riders’ first jobs out of college was stuffing envelopes for a ballot initiative which you worked to defeat, or that she is a political appointee at a regulatory agency that increased your company’s compliance costs. It’s the specificity of political operations, combined with the intimacy of a ride shared with strangers, which makes an enforced hiatus a necessity.

But today is an exception. This morning, I ride with Keith, a retired Navy man who volunteers his time twice a week at the White House Office of Correspondence, which is exactly what it sounds like. He sits in a room with other volunteers and sorts the hundreds of thousands of letters that the President receives each week. Having worked at an agency where such letters sometimes get forwarded, I appreciate the difficulty in the task, with letter openers being required to correctly distinguish such bureaucratic turf battles and acronymic puzzles such as the FHA from the FHFA, ONDCP from DOJ/ATF, and EX/IM from OPIC.  But outside of that, I don’t know much about what the day-to-day operations entail; you’d have to ask Keith.

Keith loves the President, which is why he spends Tuesdays and Fridays driving his late-model Mercedes into the District from his suburban Virginia home to sort through his mail. It’s his way of giving back, he tells me. There’s an earnestness that I find confounding and appealing and naïve. He tells me about his Navy career, and how he enlisted at eighteen and wishes that his son, who lives at home and who’s not really the college-type, would enlist. It wouldn’t even have to be the Navy; Keith doesn’t hold grudges. But he’s glad to know that there’s a President who has America’s back. So glad, that he’ll drive two hours twice a week and pay $18 dollars a day just for the privilege of opening his mail. Then Keith asks me about the proper way to drop off slugs, since this is his first time after a buddy told him about slugging, and I explain: just drop them off on the side of the road nearest to the intersection where they’ll be getting off. For me, this is 18thand Pennsylvania. He thanks me and obliges, and as I get out of the car, he shouts at me his cell phone number and simultaneously requests mine and says, “I’ll call you when I’m leaving so that I can pick you up this afternoon.”

I don’t know if it is the breach of etiquette or the atypical gregariousness or the niceness of his car or the fact that he sees opening letters as a means of giving back that makes me remember Keith. Maybe it’s the feeling that by accepting a ride from him, I’m somehow complicit in the various aspects of the current Administration that I cannot abide. Or, on the other hand, it’s the semi-uncomfortable realization that in both the quotidian task of arriving at work, as well as the larger scale of living in this democracy of America, that I am–in a real and figurative sense–dependent upon Keith. And so I accept his offer, give him my cell phone number, and I get a ride home with Keith that afternoon.

 

 

 

 

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